Death of the Suburbs
The Trouble with Zoning
One of the great drivers of suburban sprawl is our near universal reliance on Euclidean zoning, which was created a century ago in response to very urban problems in lower Manhattan.
Zoning as we know it appeared on the scene rather suddenly. Two elements converged in New York City at the turn of the 20th century which led to the first zoning: the desire by fancy Fifth Avenue merchants to stem the encroachment of garment factories, and the appearance of the skyscraper which was made possible by the invention of the steel frame and the elevator. Although it was not the first Manhattan skyscraper, in 1915 General Thomas Coleman DuPont opened the Equitable Building at 120 Broadway. Its dimensions were spectacular. It covered an entire city block at Broadway between Pine and Cedar Streets, cramming 13,000 workers into its incredible, nearly 1.8 million square feet of office space. It was gigantic for its time and cast a noon-time shadow four blocks long, darkening buildings up to half its height from direct sunlight.
In response, New York City created a Height of Buildings Commission whose report verged on hysteria when it described the possibilities of serious fire in a tall building and conjured horrific visions of the panic that would occur if the building’s occupants were disgorged onto the narrow city streets during a fire. Such fears were far-fetched, at least until 9/11, but the solution to this somewhat exaggerated problem was zoning. The Commission was headed by the brilliant lawyer, Edward M. Bassett, considered the father of American zoning, who drafted the first zoning regulation which became law on July 25, 1916. Its stated goal was to “provide adequate light and air” and prevent “overcrowding of the land.”
Bassett was later appointed to head an advisory committee of the Department of Commerce which in 1924 drafted the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act by which municipalities could adopt zoning regulations. Zoning quickly swept the country. By 1926, more than 425 municipalities had adopted zoning ordinances, including Baltimore.
The remainder of this article can be read on page 35 in BUILD Maryland magazine March/April 2015. Be sure to follow the Death of the Suburbs article series, coauthored by David S. Thaler, P.E., in BUILD's bimonthly magazine publications!